Friday, 26 December 2014

Call it What You Want, This is Murder.

As write this, the great State of Texas is making plans to murder a man named Scott Panetti. Of course, if this murder is accomplished, it won't officially be called that; legally it will be an execution. Legal niceties, however, don't effect moral realities and if Scott Panetti dies at the hands of the state, it will be murder, whatever the law calls it.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I'm not of the view that every execution is murder. While I personally hold the opinion that capital punishment should be abolished, I recognise, as does the Catholic Church, that the state has the right to punish sufficiently heinous crimes with the death penalty. In the case of Scott Panetti, however, I fail to see how any person could regard the execution as morally justifiable.

Panetti has been sentenced to die for the 1992 murder of his in laws. There is no real doubt that Panetti did kill them. The reason his execution is so obviously unjust, however, is first, there is good reason to doubt his sanity at the time, and second, because his 1995 trial was a clear travesty.

Scott Panetti is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. In the years leading up to the 1992 killing he had no fewer than three compulsory admissions to mental hospitals, all on the same diagnosis. At his 1995 trial, he chose to represent himself, giving as his reason for doing so that he believed his appointed lawyer was part of a conspiracy against him. At the trial he dressed in a purple cowboy suit, called himself 'Sarge' and attempted to subpoena the then Pope, the late President John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

So, this ought to be the end of the matter, there is good reason to doubt his sanity at the time of the killings and he clearly wasn't fit to defend himself at his trial, he should be locked up for his own and others' protection but should not be put to death. Some, however, don't see it that way. Texas' governor, Rick Perry, has repeatedly refused to intervene in the case. Perry was candidate for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2012 and has flagged the possibility of running again in 2016. He likes to put himself forward as pro-life and a defender of Christian moral values.

In similar manner, one of those defending Panetti's death sentence in the federal courts has been Ted Cruz. Cruz, who defended the sentence in his capacity as the state's attorney general, is now a US Senator and darling of the 'Tea Party'. He also presents himself as a champion of pro-life values.

For anyone with a basic understanding of Christian moral philosophy or even basic humanity, understanding this should not be difficult. For Christians, one of the great glories of humanity is our freedom of the will. Our moral responsibility grows out of that freedom. For this reason, while we generally want humans punished when they do something wrong, we don't demand to see the tools they used or the clothes they wore punished, because we recognise that these things don't have free will. For the same reasons, people are not generally held accountable for what they do accidentally because they did not freely will it. (They are punished for the results of their negligence, but the negligence was freely chosen, even if the consequence wasn't.)

In the case of the mentally ill, however, that free will is impaired. In the case of someone as clearly insane and delusional as Panetti, that freedom is impaired to such a great degree that he can reasonably be deemed no more morally responsible that one of the weapons he used. In such circumstances, the state has no moral right to execute him and, should it do so, his death will morally be a murder, whatever the great State of Texas shall call it.


  1. 'clearly'?
    Wasn't clear to the juries. Wasn't clear to the judges. Nor apparently to the Governor.

    Nor have you demonstrated it here. Mental illness can be a defence, but isn't automatically. Did it prevent him from realising that his inlaws were human? Did the illness trick him into thinking that they were actively trying to kill him? If not, then he made a conscious decision to commit murder. If it did, why have you not pointed this out in your post?

  2. Please note what I did and didn't say. I didn't say he was clearly insane, merely that there is good reason to doubt his sanity. I did say he was clearly delusional, and I think that his three compulsory hospital admissions with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia together with is attempts to subpoena JFK and Jesus at the trial bear that out. I also said his trial was clearly a travesty, see above.

    Was he sane at the time of the killings, I seriously doubt, but I didn't say he clearly wasn't, merely that he clearly was denied the right to have the matter gone into properly at his trial.

    If what I've already written doesn't convince you that his trial was a travesty, consider this. Prior to his trial there was a competency hearing. The state psychiatrist, not the defence psychiatrist, the guy paid for by the state and testifying for the prosecution, testified that the defendant didn't know what year it was, didn't know who the president was and suffered from serious delusions that would likely effect his ability to assist his lawyers.